A few years ago I was fortunate to spend six months traveling across the globe. When I delve back into memories of the time there were many serendipitous incidents or interactions there are some of my most affecting memories. Starting in Australia and moving through Asia to Europe and then North America I experienced many heartbreaking situations from the stark inequality in Singapore between the labourers of the city and those that ran it; the lingering, unresolved effects of a 3 decade long civil war in Sri Lanka; the mass migration of people looking for a better life in Europe and ripples of disquiet it was creating in their wake; and the rise of Trump against a background of deeply entrenched racism within the USA. Even as the world seemed to be spinning towards harder times I had so many heartwarming experiences of kindness that it makes me believe the madness will not prevail. I’m going to share a few of these experiences below, perhaps it will take to times in your life where you experienced similar unconditional outpouring of human kindness.
Two weeks out of this trip I met several unexpected hurdles, particularly for a planner like me. First my friend in Singapore, and first overseas stop of the trip, called to say that was having relationship problems and I would not able to stay with her. More devastatingly the next day, a colleague and good friend unexpectedly died. Suddenly my well laid plans seemed to be fragmenting and grief numbed it all. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start to my trip and yet from this messy beginnings came the first glimmering of the unexpected generosity and kindness I would find everywhere I went.
The next two weeks were a blur of dealing with a funeral, propping up a workplace while bringing up to speed two new staff including an acting CEO and finalising all the things that need to be done before going on a six month trip. A friend on hearing about my predicament in needing affordable accommodation in Singapore at the last minute offered the assistance of an old school friend. I gladly accepted and so came to meet the first of many beautiful people who generously gave assistance to me without any expectations or demands. It’s unlikely I will ever meet Jiek and her husband again. Yet for a week they shared their home, meals (including the best home made easter buns I have ever tasted) and life with me.
It helped perhaps that we had a friend in common. Still their willingness to open their home to a stranger was for me a demonstration that the simple and ancient tradition of hospitality is still alive. Despite the increasing commodification of every part of human life and where travel normally involves sterile hotel rooms or the strange camaraderie of passing travelers in hostels, this chance to stay with a local gave to a me a deeper, more meaningful glimpse of life in Singapore.
Moving on to the next stop in my trip, Sri Lanka and a heartwarming glimpse of help between strangers. I was heading home in a 3-wheeler when it blew a tyre. This particular driver had about as much English comprehension as I had Sinhalese. Which is to say not much of a conversation was possible, but he managed to convey that I needed to get out so he could replace the tyre. It was late afternoon and two men were standing nearby, probably waiting for a lift home after work. Complete strangers and yet they immediately came over and propped up the 3-wheeler so the driver could replace the tyre. Five minutes later a new tyre was in place and we were back on the road and the good Samaritans were back to chatting on the pavement. No fuss, no money, just human beings helping each other out.
Hop a continent and I found myself in Italy where the beauty of the Italian mountains seemed wasted on its people. Certainly in the hikes I did there were a conspicuous lack of fellow hikers and finding public transport to get you anywhere near to a national park was a phenomenal task, complicated by my lack of Italian. Finding myself tiring of the towns with their ostentatious monuments of human building I dug around online and finally found that I could reach a national park from the town I was staying in on a train. Off I went all geared up for an amazing hike. Arriving at the station of Ronco Scrivia I hopped out and vainly try to find any indication of where to go. The tiny town of typically curving streets was huddled in a valley and bounded by a busy highway on one side and looming mountains all around. I have no sense of direction and finding my google maps was not going to come to my aid I set off doing my best to follow my scribbled directions. After several missed turns I spotted a man dropping off his recycling at one of the designated recycling bin spots. In my best broken Italian I asked how to get to Monte Reale. To which I get a flow of Italian, none of which was the simple go straight ahead, take a left, take a right kind of directions that I would have understood.
Thankfully some facial expressions, like that of complete incomprehension, translate across the language barrier. When that kind man gestured to his car and made it clear that he would take me where I wanted to go I gratefully climbed in. It was only as he started to head to the highway that I began to freak out, not that he might be a murderer, but that he was going to drive me to some far off spot and I’d have no hope of getting back to the train station. Somehow I managed to communicate that I needed to be able to get back to the train station and so he made a point of showing me where the station was and which way I would need to come back. Perhaps it was around then that I also started to think that getting in a car with a complete stranger in a foreign land where you don’t really speak the language was not the smartest move. I also remember thinking that the fact that this man had been dropping off his recycling made him trustworthy. Funny how the brain works.
As the car began winding up a steep track up the mountain we attempted to make conversation. At one stage he pointed out his house and mentioned that I think he was a metal worker. Certainlty nothing like the limited conversation between two people with the barest knowledge of the others language to make you appreciate the difficulties faced by millions of people as they try to make new homes in a foreign land. Finally we got to a point where his car couldn’t go any further and he indicated the track that would take me to the park. We finally exchanged names (I am ashamed to admit that I don’t remember his name), shook hands and I got out and headed in the direction he pointed. So I got to hike through some stunning mountain trails in this part of Italy (if I’d have to had walked up the mountain to reach the park I would have probably given up, half way up!) and more importantly I have the memory of such timely, simple kindness that can only come from trusting in our fellow human beings.
Every so often you come across people who are so suited to the work they do that it makes you believe that there is an ideal job for all of us. This was the case with my airbnb host (Jaime) in Freiburg, Germany. I arrived late on a Sunday night to be greeted with a home cooked meal and a wonderfully meaningful conversation. I had initially booked in for two nights and was planning to move to another place after this. But after the first hour I knew that this was a place worth staying in. When I mentioned wanting to stay longer Jaime was happy to accommodate me and so I ended up spending three more days where every meal was provided and I had the blissful freedom of being able to explore and then come home and be well fed and have someone to have a nice chat with. It was clear that Jaime got a lot of pleasure from meeting people from around the world and getting to know them. He’d also say that there was no point earning too much money as it just made your neighbours jealous. In this vein he told to pay whatever I felt able to for the extra days I stayed. When I paid him on the final day, he gave me the added gift of saying that the money would go to help pay for a university fees of a one of his friends who was not well off.
There is enough doom and gloom pedaled to us through the mainstream media in the guise of factual, objective news. To shift our attention to the acts of caring and compassion for a while reminds us that each and every human being has many commonalities, the capacity for selfless acts being one of them. Memories of these experiences in kindness remain with me as a bright inspirational glow that propels me forward into new adventures and challenges at home. I hope it uplifts and provides a new perspective into the impact our actions, however insignificant they may seem, can have for those we encounter and the world at large.
Do share your stories of kindness in the comments below. Its always good to share the moments that make a day.